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Charles Lewington: Cameron may get an Olympic bounce. But there's little precedent for it - if any

Charles Lewington is Managing Director of hanover.

Screen shot 2012-07-26 at 18.36.42London 2012 is here. The hairline cracks in the M4 have been fixed, the strikes have been called off, the VIP ‘Zil’ lanes are open and the athletes have been trying out their new Stella McCartney uniforms.

In the corridors of power in Whitehall, there’s an unspoken hope that a successful games could help improve David Cameron’s reputation following a deluge of PR disasters. The last Budget was followed by so-many policy U-turns that commentators lost count, and the UK economy is sliding into a prolonged recession.

Sadly, there is little political precedent to suggest that incident-free sporting events can restore a politician’s fortunes.

The Sydney Olympics were globally acclaimed as super-slick but Prime Minister John Howard’s poll ratings crashed like a firework into the harbour when the Australian dollar hit a record low against the US dollar soon after.

George Bush’s popularity ratings steadily deteriorated after the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002 in the wake of foreign policy difficulties.

Any hopes that Angela Merkel had for a poll lift following the 2006 World Cup were dashed two months later when only 20% of Germans declared she was doing a good job. Even if Germany had won the tournament, concerns over reform agendas and healthcare would have taken precedence in the minds of voters.

Some voters have been positively ungrateful around Olympic time. Greece’s Pasok administration was chucked out three months before the Athens games in 2004 partly because of the public’s disenchantment at their preparations. Given the fact that ordinary Greeks are going to be picking up the £9.4 billion bill for the games for generations, maybe their verdict was a shrewd one.

One of the few leaders to see a steady rise in popularity was President Clinton in 1996. His personal ratings reached a campaign high of 60% a month after the Atlanta games and he went on the win a second term in November. However, the Republican candidate Bob Dole was so poor that it is difficult to argue that it was the sporting effect ‘what won it.’

Could a record Team GB medal haul be the spark for an upturn in government popularity? Tax payers have invested millions into UK sport over the past 15 years and sporting success could be the ultimate vindication for the vast expense of hosting London 2012.  According to Goldman Sachs research, host nations usually get a medal bump, but it will be hard to build on our unexpected fourh place in Beijing.

LOCOG and both this and the last Government have been wise to make the Olympic legacy a key selling point. Future plans for the arenas are underway, and UKTI intends to use them for business summits to promote trade and investment.  A country’s commercial reputation abroad is often the biggest beneficiary, and the 2010 World Cup prompted a major shift in perception about South Africa as a place for doing business.

If the games do go smoothly it is possible that the Government will regain some of its reputation for competence. But it’s a big ‘if.’ 


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